The story behind The Right to be Lazy
In the 60s, when I belonged to Chicago’s Solidarity Bookshop crew of anarchists, surrealists and Wobblies, we distributed all the copies we could find of the rare, 1906, C. H. Kerr edition of Paul Lafargue’s The Right to be Lazy. To meet an increasing demand for the essay, we decided to reprint it in 1969 while I was a member of the J.S. Jordan Co-op Print shop. Jordan Co-op was a movement shop that printed most of the agitational literature distributed at the historic 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Tor Faegre, bookshop member and Polaris Action activist, designed a delightful cover and we sold out that edition quickly.
Later, Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, as members of Solidarity Bookshop’s conspiracy against work, joined the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company and issued a new edition of The Right to be Lazy with Fred Thompson’s biographical essay of Lafargue. Thompson’s essay was the first extensive survey of Lafargue to appear in English. When I heard that edition, now twenty years old, was out-of-print I suggested reprinting his famous essay along with his lesser-known satiric writings. To round out the project, I added an introduction to bring his ideas into the 21st Century since they continue to challenge capitalism’s noxious core – wage slavery.
In the years since the 60s I have come to realize that Lafargue’s criticism of work only grow in relevancy. Fifty years ago, employment – as the glue that held society together – came under scrutiny by a wide range of opinion. Mainstream commentators anguished that work would disappear with the rise of automation, while dissidents, who I allied with, rejected work wholesale as a misuse of human and natural resources to simply perpetuate mindless consumption.
Today, I would argue that work has been displaced from the center of life by pursuits of material and spiritual satisfactions. This does not mean that I think work has receded into insignificance, especially for the unemployed, but that jobs have ceased, for most, to dominate lives as they did with previous generations. Company towns, for instance, have disappeared from the American landscape (to reappear in distant lands), along with their industrial armies; more importantly, the personal stake in one’s job has diminished directly as dissatisfaction with work increases. Those who doubt this have not seen the zombies shuffling off to their posts in the early morning light.
These views on working are not popular with those who oppose the capitalist system because it doesn’t “deliver the goods” – defined in the United States as the American Dream. Nor where they popular in Lafargue’s day when the promise of “sharing the wealth” Capital produced increasingly seduced the reformist leadership of the trade unions and the “tribunes of the people.”
The Right to be Lazy however remained popular with the workers. It has been reproduced and distributed more widely than any other Marxist text except the Manifesto. Its sardonic wit strikes the chords of rebellion that resonate down the long hall of satire.
Given the subversive content of this essay and the revolutionary politics of Lafargue, it is totally appropriate that the production of this volume makes use of labor that has taken one step out of the nexus of wage-slavery. The combined efforts of members of three worker-run collective ventures contributed to its realization. Starting with C.H. Kerr, whose 125 years of radical publishing history is commemorated in this book, to the collaboration of AK Press, the publishing and distribution group that moves into its 20th year of “fanning the flames of discontent,” and finally the material realization of the book is due to the fine printing in Berkeley by Inkworks Press, a worker-run union print shop established in 1974, and where I am Member Emeritus.